Circus debuts on PBS tonight at 9 p.m. Eastern (though you should check local listings to confirm when it's airing in your area).
A good year for documentaries on the big screen has slowly but surely manifested itself on the small screen as well. Spring's Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution had a few developments that might strike one as too convenient for realism, but its reimagining of the self-improvement reality show as a Frank Capra film was like nothing else on the air at the time, and both Sundance and IFC have shown a refreshing willingness to play around with ideas of the documentary miniseries, where subjects that can't comfortably fit within two hours are split up over multiple episodes to develop like they would on a good scripted series. These series are often a weird middle ground between an Errol Morris film and a reality show, and a couple of the best shows on TV last decade (The Staircase and Nimrod Nation, respectively) were Sundance miniseries documentaries. (And if you're looking for recommendations, One Punk Under God is another solid one.)
In recent years, though, PBS has started to get more into this game, rather than the more traditional, experts-as-talking-heads style of PBS documentary. It's resulted in Circus, the new best example of this form on the network and some of the most fascinating TV you'll see all year. Broadly speaking, Circus is a workplace reality show about the people who work in the Big Apple Circus, roughly similar to some of the other workplace reality shows you might see on A&E (which seems to make its living almost entirely off of the format). It's got colorful characters working in a setting that most people will never experience the backstage reality of. It's got poignant conflicts driven by people who really shouldn't have anything to do with each other but do because of where they work. It's also got horses. (OK, most A&E shows don't have that.)
But Circus succeeds where a lot of these series fail because it's willing to go just a bit deeper. The central conflict of tonight's first hour isn't about whether the trapeze artists will be ready with their performance in time for the first show (though it very well could be) or about whether the clowns will figure out the best way to wring laughs out of a reluctant public (though, again, it very well could be). No, the central conflict is about a relatively sweet young couple in love and whether the husband's personal demons will drive them apart or away from the life they love. In Circus, the circus is a kind of catch-all for people who don't really have anywhere else to go in American society but still have a driving need to be a part of something like show business. The series succeeds when it looks into who those people are and when it's not afraid to be a little critical of both them and their dreams. And yet, at the end of the day, the series completely accepts that the show they put on is stellar.
It's not as though these successes are confined entirely to the interpersonal stories, though. There's a surprising amount of information on circus technique here, particularly in tonight's second hour, where there's a lengthy section that dissects the trapeze swingers getting ready for performance night and shows exactly where certain failed catches go wrong, not to mention how the performers improve where they need to. Circus does all of this with a refreshing lack of hand-holding. There's no narrator to explain what's going wrong. Viewers are assumed to be smart enough to catch up, as they are in a scene where a new clown gets lessons in how to make every single tiny movement funny to someone in the very back seats from a veteran clown (whose character, Grandma, is a circus mainstay).
The miniseries was created by Mayo Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre, the same team that turned out PBS' highly acclaimed Carrier in 2008, which took the same approach the two bring to Circus and placed it onboard an aircraft carrier. Carrier was very good TV, but Circus is borderline great TV because Chermayeff and Dupre aren't dealing with people whose mission statement is to protect the free world. They're dealing with people whose mission statement is to entertain people with acts and ideas that are centuries old, in some cases. Yet the creators take something that should feel relatively low-stakes and make it seem like the only thing in the world that matters. When the performers mess up in front of an audience, you feel it. When a stage clown gets another chance at his childhood dream by becoming a circus clown, something he'd never have considered possible just a few short years ago, the series drives home just how eager he is to learn but also how out of his depth he is at first. And Chermayeff and Dupre aren't content just to hang out with the performers. They spend time backstage with horse groomers, creative directors, and even the circus' sole school teacher, a young woman named Julie who's found this as her first teaching job.
Any show like this only succeeds based on the strength of its "characters," and Circus has a bevy of them. The central character, as it were, is Paul Binder, who toured Europe with a European circus before returning to the United States to co-found his own company. Now, he's the artistic director, and he's exactly the kind of guy you want at the center of a creative endeavor like this, exacting in his critiques of what works and what doesn't and stingy with his praise (though careful to offer it when it's merited). Surrounding him are any number of other people, including veteran clown Steve Smith (who sounds just a little like Martin Scorsese at times) and Glen Heroy, the aforementioned stage clown who takes a chance on the circus and spends much of the first two hours worrying about his job security while trying to perfect the process of taking off his hat in a funny manner. Then there's Barry Lubin, the aforementioned clowning genius, who spends lots of time working with Glen to iron out his routine, and Harmony French, who tries to keep a long-distance relationship alive while traveling with the troupe. And, of course, Ryan and Heidi, who consider ditching their dreams to follow one of Ryan's crazy schemes down to the Caribbean and provide the first hour with its heart-rending center.
There's stupid stuff in Circus (tonight's pre-episode "this is what the show is about" package is particularly dreadful, though it may be the result of a network note), but Chermayeff and Dupre have taken everything they learned from working on Carrier and brought it to a world where it doesn't seem like big drama should exist. And as the series goes on (six hours, total, will air tonight and the two weeks after), these characters, conflicts, and situations deepen. And yet, early in the first hour, the creators zero in on the central question of the whole series when one person says their life was a mess, so, of course, they ran away to join the circus. Chermayeff and Dupre find the refreshing normality of circus life, the cookouts and family gatherings and friendships formed, but they also explore the fact that the circus is often a last resort, a place you wash up when nowhere else will have you. The conflict between that need for escape and the circus' heads' need to put on a good show? That's where Chermayeff and Dupre's show ultimately lives, and that's what makes it so great.